Having a Faith That Works

“What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? . . . You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:14, 24).

True faith produces good works.

Many false teachers claim that you can earn your own salvation by doing good works. Most Christians understand the heresy of that teaching, but some become confused when they read that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). That seems to conflict with Paul’s teaching on salvation by grace through faith.

But when properly understood, James’ teaching on salvation is perfectly consistent with Paul’s. Paul clearly taught salvation by grace. In Ephesians 2:8-9 he says, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” But Paul also taught that true salvation results in good works, for in the next verse he says, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

In Titus 3:5 he says that God “saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy”; but Titus 2:11-12 clarifies that God’s grace leads us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” That’s the proper balance between faith and works.

James also taught salvation by grace. He said that God redeems sinners by the Word of truth and implants His Word within them to enable them to progress in holiness (James 1:18, 21). That’s a divine work, not a human effort. James 2:14-24 follows that up by telling us how we can know that work has taken place: there will be more than just a proclamation of faith but a faith that does good works.

Don’t be confused by how faith relates to good works. Put the two together by being a living testimony to God’s saving grace.

Suggestions for Prayer

  • Thank God for the righteousness He is producing in your life. Look for specific ways to demonstrate your faith to those around you today.

For Further Study

  • Read John 8:31-32.
  • What is the mark of a true disciple?
  • What effect does God’s Word have on those who heed what it says?

From Drawing Near by John MacArthur Copyright © 1993. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.com.

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Showing Mercy

“So speak and so act, as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12-13).

Showing mercy is characteristic of a regenerate person.

Divine judgment has never been a popular topic of conversation. Godly people throughout history have been ridiculed, persecuted, and even killed for proclaiming it. In their efforts to win the approval of men, false teachers question or deny it. But James 2:12-13 reminds us that judgment will come, so we’d better live accordingly.

The basis for divine judgment is God’s Word, which James called “the law of liberty” (v. 12). It is a liberating law because it frees you from sin’s bondage and the curse of death and hell. It is the agency of the Spirit’s transforming work, cutting deep into your soul to judge your thoughts and motives (Heb. 4:12). It gives you the wisdom that leads to salvation, and equips you for godly living (2 Tim. 3:15-17). It imparts truth and discernment, freeing you from error and spiritual deception. It is in every sense a law of freedom and liberation for those who embrace it.

The law liberates believers but condemns unbelievers. The phrase “judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy” (v. 13) speaks of unrelieved judgment in which every sin receives its fullest punishment. That can only mean eternal hell! If the Word is at work in you, its effects will be evident in the way you speak and act. If you are impartial and merciful to people in need, that shows you are a true Christian and have received God’s forgiveness and mercy yourself. If you show partiality and disregard for the needy, the law becomes your judge, exposing the fact that you aren’t truly redeemed.

Are you a merciful person? Do you seek to provide for others without favoritism? When you fail to do so, do you confess your sin and seek forgiveness and restoration? Those are marks of true faith.

Suggestions for Prayer

  • Praise the Lord for His great mercy toward you, and be sure to show mercy to those around you.

For Further Study

  • Read Luke 1:46-55 and 68-79. Follow Mary’s and Zacharias’s example by rejoicing over God’s mercy toward His people.

From Drawing Near by John MacArthur Copyright © 1993. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.com.

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Transgressing the Royal Law

“If you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:9-11).

You sin when you fall short of God’s holy standard or go beyond the limits of His law.

Many people attempt to justify their sinfulness by categorizing sins according to their apparent severity. For example, telling a “little white lie” isn’t as serious to them as committing perjury; cheating on their income tax isn’t as serious as robbing a bank. Others see God’s law as a series of detached injunctions, and assume they can gain credit with God by keeping one law even if they break the others. In the final analysis, if the laws they don’t break outweigh the laws they do, they think everything will be OK.

Apparently some of those to whom James wrote had the same misconceptions, believing sins like prejudice, partiality, and indifference to the poor weren’t as serious as sins like murder and adultery. Or perhaps they believed they could make up for their favoritism by keeping God’s law in other areas.

Both of those views are erroneous and potentially damning because God’s law isn’t a series of detached injunctions or a way of gaining credit with God. It’s a unified representation of His holy nature. Even though all sins aren’t equally heinous or damaging, from God’s perspective every sin violates His standard. When you break one law, you break them all and are characterized as a sinner and transgressor.

“Sin” in verse 9 speaks of missing the mark and falling short of God’s holy standard. “Transgressors” refers to going beyond the accepted limits. One says you’ve fallen short; the other says you’ve gone too far. Both are equal violations of God’s holiness. You must see all sin as an affront to Him and never compound your sin by attempting to hide it, justify it, or counterbalance it with good works.

Suggestions for Prayer

  • Memorize 1 John 1:9 and always confess your sin whenever you violate God’s holy law.
  • Praise God for pitying our plight as sinners and providing a Savior.

For Further Study

  • Read Galatians 3:10-29, noting the purpose of God’s law.

From Drawing Near by John MacArthur Copyright © 1993. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.com.

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Fulfilling the Royal Law

“If . . . you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8).

Love is the only antidote for partiality.

In Matthew 22:36 a lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest. Jesus answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (vv. 37-40). Love for God and one’s fellow man summarizes the intent of God’s law, and is the measure of true faith.

Jesus wasn’t calling for the shallow, emotional, self-oriented love that is so prevalent in our society, but for a sacrificial quality of love that places the needs of others on par with your own. That kind of love is utterly incompatible with partiality, which seeks only to further its own selfish goals.

Showing partiality breaks God’s law because it violates God’s attributes, misrepresents the Christian faith, ignores God’s choice of the poor, and condones the blasphemous behavior of the rich (James 2:1-7). But when you treat others impartially, you fulfill the royal law. “Royal” in James 2:8 translates a Greek word that speaks of sovereignty. The law was given by God, who is the supreme authority in the universe, so it is authoritative and binding. Love fulfills God’s law because if you love someone, you won’t sin against him.

Apparently not all of James’s readers were showing partiality, so he commended them, saying they were “doing well.” The Greek word translated “well” speaks of that which is excellent. They were doing an excellent thing because they were acting in a manner consistent with God’s impartial, loving nature. That’s God’s call to every believer: for “the one who says he abides in [Christ] ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6). As you do, you fulfill God’s law and thereby prove that your faith and love are genuine.

Suggestions for Prayer

  • God’s love is the only antidote for partiality, so pray each day that He will teach you how better to express His love to those around you.

For Further Study

  • Read the following verses, noting the characteristics of godly love: John 3:16, Ephesians 5:25-29, Philippians 1:9-11, and 1 John 5:1-3.

From Drawing Near by John MacArthur Copyright © 1993. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.com.

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Siding with God’s Enemies

“Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?” (James 2:6-7).

You can’t accomplish God’s purposes by siding with His enemies.

Favoritism has a way of blinding its victims to reality. James wrote of Christians who were trying to impress a rich man so they could benefit from his wealth and social status (vv. 2-3). The rich man represented the enemies of Christ, yet they gave him preferential treatment anyway. The poor man represented those whom God chose to be rich in faith and heirs of His kingdom, yet they treated him badly and dishonored him (v. 6). That’s not only inconsistent, it’s foolish! You can’t accomplish God’s purposes by siding with His enemies.

Some ungodly rich people tyrannized Christians by withholding their wages and even putting some to death (James 5:4-6). They forcibly dragged Christians to court to exploit them by some injustice or inequity. They blasphemed the fair name of Christ. The phrase “by which you have been called” (v. 7) speaks of a personal relationship. Typically new converts made a public proclamation of their faith in Christ at their baptism. From then on they were called “Christians,” meaning, “Christ’s own,” “Christ’s ones,” or “belonging to Christ.” So when people slandered Christians, they were slandering Christ Himself!

That anyone could overlook those evils and show favoritism to the enemies of Christ shows the subtle and devastating power of partiality. Today, the circumstances may be different, but the principles are the same. So for the sake of Christ and His people, remember the three reasons James gives for not showing partiality: You and your brothers and sisters in Christ are one with the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the glory of God revealed (v. 1); God has chosen the poor to eternal riches (v. 5); and God has called you by His name (v. 7). If you desire to be like Christ, you cannot be partial. Be fair and impartial in all your interactions with others.

Suggestions for Prayer

  • Is there a personal or business relationship in which you are showing favoritism to gain some advantage for yourself? If so, confess it to the Lord and correct it right away.

For Further Study

  • Read Romans 15:5-7.
  • How should Christians treat one another?
  • What impact will we have if we obey Paul’s admonition?

From Drawing Near by John MacArthur Copyright © 1993. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.com.

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God’s Choice of the Poor

“Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man” (James 2:5-6).

Showing favoritism to the rich is inconsistent with God’s choice of the poor.

Wealth and poverty are not necessarily spiritual issues. Many wealthy people are godly Christians and many poor people are unbelievers. But generally speaking, God has chosen poor people to populate His kingdom. Jesus said, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easer for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:23-24). That’s because rich people tend to be bound to this world and have a false sense of security. Many of them not only reject Christ, but also persecute believers (cf. James 2:6-7).

Regardless of your financial status, if you love God, you are rich in faith and an heir of His kingdom (James 2:5). That means you’re saved and will inherit the fullness of your salvation and the richness of God’s eternal blessing. That’s a marvelous truth!

Don’t let riches cloud your good judgment. God expects Christians to honor and care for their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ. You can’t do that if you’re showing partiality to the rich.

Suggestions for Prayer

  • If God has blessed you with more resources than you need, be grateful and ready always to share with those in need (1 Tim. 6:19). If you struggle to get by, thank Him for what He does provide and for teaching you greater dependence on Him.

For Further Study

  • Read 1 Timothy 6:6-19.
  • What is God’s standard of contentment?
  • What pitfalls await those who desire wealth?
  • What constitutes true riches?

From Drawing Near by John MacArthur Copyright © 1993. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.com.

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Guarding Your Motives

“If a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” (James 2:2-4).

Favoritism is motivated by an evil desire to gain some advantage for yourself.

The story is told of a pastor who never ministered to an individual or family in his church without first checking a current record of their financial contributions. The more generous they were with their money, the more generous he was with his time. That’s an appalling and flagrant display of favoritism, but in effect it’s the same kind of situation James dealt with in our text for today.

Picture yourself in a worship service or Bible study when suddenly two visitors enter the room. The first visitor is a wealthy man, as evidenced by his expensive jewelry and designer clothes. The second visitor lives in abject poverty. The street is his home, as evidenced by his filthy, smelly, shabby clothing.

How would you respond to each visitor? Would you give the rich man the best seat in the house and see that he is as comfortable as possible? That’s a gracious thing to do if your motives are pure. But if you’re trying to win his favor or profit from his wealth, a vicious sin has taken hold of you.

Your true motives will be revealed in the way you treat the poor man. Do you show him equal honor, or simply invite him to sit on the floor? Anything less than equal honor reveals an evil intent.

Favoritism can be subtle. That’s why you must be in prayer and in the Word, constantly allowing the Spirit to penetrate and purify your deepest, most secret motives.

Suggestions for Prayer

  • Praise God for His purity.
  • Ask Him always to control your motives and actions.

For Further Study

  • Some Christians confuse honor with partiality. Giving honor to those in authority is biblical; showing partiality is sinful. Read 1 Peter 2:17 and Romans 13:1, noting the exhortations to honor those in authority over you.

From Drawing Near by John MacArthur Copyright © 1993. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.com.

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